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Figure in Key 1985 Case Dies

Suicide: Sagon Penn was found to have shot in self-defense when he killed a police officer.

July 05, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — A man who killed one police officer and wounded another in 1985 in an incident that led to substantial changes in the Police Department's approach to the black community was found dead Thursday after an apparent suicide overdose, officials said.

The body of Sagon Penn, 40 was found by his mother on the floor of an apartment they shared in the suburb of Spring Valley. Officials said a suicide note nearby suggested that he had apparently taken an overdose of prescription anti-psychotic drugs because of a sense of hopelessness.

The changes brought about by the Penn case were credited with helping San Diego avoid the kind of violence that erupted in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities in 1992 after a Simi Valley jury found white officers not guilty in the beating of black motorist Rodney G. King.

Two racially diverse San Diego juries found that Penn, an African American, had acted in self-defense when two white officers, in what started as a routine traffic stop, began beating him with fists and nightsticks. One officer used racial slurs.

In a brief but violent struggle witnessed by two dozen neighbors, Penn, a martial arts expert, took away one officer's gun and began firing, killing Officer Thomas Riggs, severely wounding Officer Donovan Jacobs and wounding a civilian, Sara Pina-Ruiz.

The incident was a wake-up call to officials about a growing estrangement between police and residents of low-income, predominantly African American neighborhoods.

"The Penn case brought to the surface all the boiling resentments, prejudices and misunderstandings that existed between police and the black community," said Milton Silverman, a lawyer who defended Penn.

Penn never testified. But witnesses said the officers became enraged after he refused to remove his driver's license from a plastic holder in his wallet.

The case tarnished the reputation of the Police Department when testimony suggested that police handling of evidence had supported the prosecution and that police had hidden records showing that Jacobs had been reprimanded for using racial epithets.

Although bitterly disappointed at Penn's acquittal at his second trial in 1987, police officials redoubled efforts to hire and promote minority officers and to listen to citizens' complaints. Advisory boards and a citizens review commission were formed.

Penn, who had once dreamed of becoming a police officer, was never able to find emotional or financial stability.

He was arrested for battery, vandalism and domestic violence and served time in jail.

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